Why Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani Matters:
Qatar's Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani is one of the Middle East's most influential, reformist leaders, balancing his tiny Arab peninsula country's traditional conservatism with his vision of a technologically modern and culturally diverse state. Next to Lebanon, he's ushered in the freest media in the Arab world; he has mediated truces or peace agreements between warring factions in Lebanon and Yemen and the Palestinian Territories, and sees his country as a strategic bridge between the United States and the Arab Peninsula.
Early Life and Rise to Power:
Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani was born in Doha, Qatar, in 1952, the eldest son of the heir apparent in a family that has dominated or ruled Qatar since the 18th century. He attended Britain's Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, then returned to Qatar as a lieutenant colonel to assume the command of a mobile brigade in the country's small army. His father deposed the ruling emir in 1972 and granted Hamad bin Khalifa increasing powers--in the military, as the minister of defense, in the Supreme Planning Council--the country's chief domestic policy body--and as an overseer of the country's oil and gas industry.
Assuming Power, Changing Qatar's Direction:
By 1995, Sheikh Hamad was the second-most powerful man in Qatar. He was a skilled politician, courting allies, mollifying rivals and curbing the financial excesses of the royal family. His father, in his view--and in the eyes of neighboring Saudi Arabia--was becoming too cozy with Iraq and Iran, and was being too arbitrary in his demotions and promotions of various members of the family. He was also too economically conservative. When the ruling emir was vacationing in Switzerland in June 1995, Sheikh Hamad deposed him (news reports at the time said he was sent packing to Switzerland).
Sheikh Hamad had already been modernizing the economy since the 1980s, but within limits imposed by his father. As emir, his ambitions were unbound. His achievements piled up. When he was born in 1952, Qatar numbered some 40,000 people, most of them poor, few of them educated. Today, Qatar numbers almost 1 million people and hosts Education City, which hosts branch campuses of many of the world's most prestigious universities. In 2008, Qatar's residents became the world's richest, with a per-person income of $80,870. Oil wealth drove Qatar's modernization. But Sheikh Hamad made his mark in other ways.
Liberalized Politics, Religion and Media:
In 1997, Qatar became the Persian Gulf's second country to grant women the right to vote. (Iran is the other.) Women have been appointed to government posts, including as minister of education. Unlike neighboring Saudi Arabia, women in Qatar may drive, wear bikinis at the beach and wear whatever they please elsewhere. Alcohol is served in hotels and a church Opened in 2008. The emir also launched Al Jazeera , the Arab world's first 24-hour pan-Arab satellite channel, in 1996, giving it wide latitude to report freely and aggressively--but not about the Emirate.
Foreign Policy :
Qtara has traditionally been at least a follower and at worst a ward of other, more powerful states--the Ottoman Empire in the 18th and 19th century, Britain in the 19th and 20th, Saudi Arabia and, to some extent, Egypt, in the later 20th century. Sheikh Hamad changed course by forging a more independent identity for Qatar, especially in its foreign policy. That's been the province of the emir's distant cousin, Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim, the foreign minister, and more recently the prime minister. Qatar is no longer a shadow of Saudi Arabia, and it is a strong, sometimes maverick member of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The Middle East's Chief Mediator:
Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani's role as a peace negotiator and mediator took an increasingly prominent role in the first decade of the 21st century. In 2008 he mediated a peace agreement between Lebanon's Shiite, Sunni and Christian factions, which had kept Lebanon in an 18-month-long state of paralysis over a choice for president. Sheikh Hamad also mediated a truce between Yemen's warring factions and has maintained good relations with both the United States on one hand and Syria and Iran on the other, informally mediating between the two blocks.
Paradoxes and Parody:
Qatar's devotion to diplomacy under Sheikh Hamad hasn't always been entirely genuine as opposed to, say, somewhat showy. "At times," The New York Times noted, "Qatar’s multifaceted approach to the world has bordered on comedy. In March 2003, Qatar hosted a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference aimed at forestalling the American invasion of Iraq, even as preparations for that invasion were taking place nearby at the American military base. As the final communiqués were being read, military cargo planes could be heard soaring overhead."
Relations with the United States:
Sheikh Hamad has been particularly keen on forging deep ties with the United States. He got the Pentagon's Central Command to set up headquarters at al-Udeid, an airbase near Doha, before the Iraq invasion in 2003. To curry favor with American officials, he frequently hosts Israeli officials in Qatar (though it was Bahrain, in 2008, that named the first Jewish ambassador of an Arab state) and contributed $100 million in aid when Hurricane Katrina hit the other Gulf, in the United States, in 2005.